The fact is that I know neither what it is to be myself nor to be a mother.
None of the children I have raised are mine. The first family I worked for, Sarah’s family, I nannied three children. I was a child in my own right then, tending to three kids at the ripe age of twenty-three. In my eleven years of professional caretaking I have signed three binding contracts with families. I have declined working offers from seven families. These declines stemmed from trial runs spent with those seven families, how I decided I couldn’t rationalize sanitizing every product in the household the way the employer wanted me to or how a child’s mouth bit into my arm during bath time and no amount of salary could forgive that act. Those declines usually came because those children were not Sarah’s children.
Sarah’s family was my longest stint yet, clocking in at nearly eight years of employment. It’s a tricky thing leaving a seven-year-old after you have cradled and fed him from four months of age. One day you are juggling multiple melting ice-cream cones, the next you have been replaced by another nanny while your own life catches another stream. In my desperation to signal the skills I have learned through all those not-mine children, I try to associate with other mothers now. When I request to join a parenting group—if only to help with teething advice or to dole out first-hand experience on how to get from one continent to another with a crying child on your lap—I’m told access to real motherhood, the type that comes through birthing or the type that never allows you to clock out, isn’t given to nannies, no matter how in demand that caregiver is. I’m often told explicitly they’re looking for parents who are not paid for child duties.
I have defined my worth by all these not-mine children and by the skills accumulated through them because, for most of my twenties, I worked to be loved.
An incomplete list of work skills I cannot put on my current resumé: witnessing all firsts (crawling, walking, bottom and top teeth, words), cleaning up after altitude sickness during an international flight (later stroking the middle’s hair as she cried herself to sleep in the aisle seat, simultaneously keeping my hand on the youngest sleeping in the window seat), making seventeen birthday cakes, curving the palms of each child as they practiced piano scales, explaining why children go to public or private schools on a long bus ride downtown, sitting with the oldest as his father was transported by helicopter to emergency surgery after a bicycle accident, buttoning the father’s shirt for him when he came home from inpatient physical therapy two months later, witnessing the baby figure out the concept of clapping, watching the youngest figure out the concept of water fountain, learning each tickle spot, dutifully residing as Emergency Contact #3, developing relationships with teachers, tutors, other mothers, other nannies, sometimes fathers, snapping the middle’s first bra on to her back, discussing capitalism in metaphorical language, teaching the youngest and middle how to read (rubberband method), sitting on the time-out step with the youngest while he told me about frustration, FaceTiming from my vacation to a home that was not mine and speaking with children that were not mine, telling them about my days away from them, then speaking with parents that were not mine as they told me I was missed.
When I worked for Sarah, I often considered her my mother.
When I worked for Sarah, I often considered her three children mine.
As far back as I can remember I was taught to believe demure care was settled in my bones, passed down through a long line of women who spent their evenings hunched on front porch steps husking corn from the backfields, women that stood sturdy and unwavering next to their men, women who gossiped over dishwashing, shouting full names of other women from the neighborhood into floating cleaning bubbles. In my childhood home my mother ran a day care where she looked after six children. This arrangement allowed her to stay omnipresent for my sibling and me. My mother never seemed to tire of running after so many children, of peeling sickly sweet chocolate-covered strawberries from muddied hands or patiently unraveling the length of garden hose so she could attach it to a Slip ’N Slide, each small body lining up to coast over yellow plastic and come out a bit rubber burned, the potato sack patches of dead grass waiting as landing pad.
I am my mother’s oldest child, her only daughter. Along with the unspoken and given responsibility of shadowing my mother as she cared for others’ children, she often enlisted her eldest as a confidant, talking shit about my father after she picked me up from school or asking what we would name her next child, who later never came home from the hospital. After twenty-two years of marriage, she left my father the moment she graduated from community college for nursing, a late in life endeavour my father paid for while my mother studied full time. I was twenty-three when they signed the divorce papers and remember being furious at my mother for taking advantage of my father like this, for using his hard-earned teacher’s salary to do something for herself, and then for leaving—as if she had been paid adequately for her time in childcare, as if she had not lost entire decades of herself tending to others, as if creating your identity around children should be sufficient pay, as if she was bound by obligation to remain unhappy if only for the sake of the children.
Until I began working for Sarah, I assumed childcare was expected of any type of Good Woman and I considered my mother’s line of work faulty in worth. Now when I tell people how I was employed for the past decade, I see it in the way their body slacks, how they too dismiss any type of labor that orbits the invisible, emotional burden attached to keeping children alive, happy, kind, and well.
In her book Of Woman Born Adrienne Rich writes, “I only knew that to have a child was to assume adult womanhood to the full, to prove myself, to be ‘like other women.’” Recently I found archives of my high school senior yearbook and was appalled to discover my self-imposed ambitions at age seventeen were to “marry and have five healthy children.” The shock stemmed from remembering how my own body looked then—how the men in my family told me I had grown into a real woman, how the women at church scolded my mother for letting me leave our house in a boatneck top that cut high but clung too close to my breasts. There was no way to conceal the curves I had been given. For years I’d stuff my bra with Kleenex tissue, hungry for this power in body and desirability, hungry for comfort in a body that was, from the beginning, uncomfortably foreign to me. When I discarded the tissue, my body fast filling out its soft shape, my demeanor took a landslide into regret and deep longing for a body unmarked. There are few things a woman can do with her body to signal agency at this age, so I eagerly accepted that children were the only thing that could turn me into a woman society would take seriously. Children were how I could emulate the lineage of women who came before me and children were how I would set my place in the world. While this yearning set into motion before I struck through my teenage years, when I left N on my thirty-first birthday it became a deafening force no amount of other people’s children could pacify.
N and I strung a burst of three entire-day dates back-to-back-to-back before she finally climbed on top of me for our first kiss. We were outside the gay bar at 3:30 a.m. after a day at the beach and a night at the movies. That day was the first day I felt N’s body on mine, her head resting on my stomach while we were alone at the beach, all the wind and salt and sand kicking up around us while we were silently pretending to read our books.
The beach led to the movies which led to gelato which led to tacos at 3 a.m. We were doing everything backward. We sat drinking Coca-Colas and eating our tacos in the back of N’s pickup truck, tailgating in the middle of Brooklyn, when a group of drunk queers emptied on to the street and began chanting kiss kiss kiss in our direction. I remember N’s exact weight on top of me, how my back pressed into the metal of the truck, my hands searing into the woolen blanket I was sitting on, the sound of her canvas work pants cracking as she shifted her knee between my legs. I can remember exactly the soft cigarette taste as her tongue pressed into my mouth, all her wetness pooling inside me, the smell of coconut oil on her chest and behind her ear. Beginnings are always like this—fast with no hiccups.
Over the next two months, small red flags blowing at half-mast started waving in the wind and I ignored each and every one of them in favor of the dazzling and momentous things that poured out of N’s mouth, love letters she spoke to me in real time. I started calling out of work to tend to more entire-day dates. We took long warm showers in the fall months and told each other stories of our childhood as we lathered under eucalyptus she had strung around the shower head. We read aloud to each other in bed, passages from our favorite books, poems that held declarations of quick love. There were rounds and rounds of cards in neighborhood cafés, her doubling over with laughter as I exclaimed she was breaking all of the rules. Dabbling in between these moments were tangents of possessive nature I dismissed easily and loud tantrums that I ignored when I came home late after working with the children.
N and I had been together for three months before I showed up two hours late to a date. Sarah was running behind at work, and I could tell from N’s tone over a barrage of text messages that I was going to be in trouble with each minute I was delayed. When I finally showed up at the restaurant, N was so livid she flipped a table to remind me of how unkind it is to place others over the one I claimed to love. The next day, she presented an ultimatum—the children or her.
There was truth to my exhaustion of caring so meticulously for so many people, N now included. I took the ultimatum and used it as a chance to quiet my life.
When I gave Sarah my resignation, she calmly stated she would happily give me any hours that I wanted, that whatever I needed she could see to it. She reminded me her children adored me. I replied to her that after seven years with her family it was simply time for me to move on, to refocus on what I needed for myself. Sarah and I sat together on the parlor floor of her town house, the floor where serious conversations happened over the Poltrona Frau white leather wrap-around couch, where her silver and crystal were displayed in warm lighting on the shelves. This was the room where the children played their piano sonatas.
Once you leave, I’m going to replace you, she stated. You won’t be able to come back. She was not threatening me; she was stating the facts. In childcare, every woman is replaceable. After seven years of being on call for a family I believed was obliged to love me, if only to recoup the amount of money they expensed for my services and care, I chose N after a cool three months of dating. I wanted so deeply to believe N’s love was of the purest form. I could feel it in the way she held me and in the lilt of her Ls when she cocked her head, smiling, and said she loved me. I wanted to roll the dice on this type of love, the type of love that wasn’t paid for but was a gamble. I wanted to make my own family and stop moonlighting in others’. It would occur to me one month later I had made the wrong decision.
We went to the cabin upstate the weekend after I gave my two-months notice to Sarah. N straddled my top half still. I writhed over striped woolen sheets while N swam her fingers harder and harder into the very core of me. She took both my wrists into her other free hand and lifted them above my head so the pressure inside me became more and more concentrated. My eyes were closed when she said it, but I heard her deep Spanish accent followed by an exasperated sigh dropping out of her mouth. She called me baby. She told me with such conviction that she was going to impregnate me right there and then that I couldn’t contain anything any longer. I released a flood on to our bed, and she kept pushing and pushing, breaking the dam further; the two of us siloed in exaltation with my body front and center. For one hour afterward neither of us moved. In my fantasy she had in fact gotten me pregnant that night; I could feel it in my bones. Our child would be four years old today.
The sand surrounding the tiny inlet of L’Isolella was warm and fine to the touch. Wherever the eye met, endless stretches of Mediterranean perpetually sat in a glisten. Gardens hugged the home; fig trees wafted over slouched clothesline. Paths throughout the dirt were trodden by the children playing their games, a brilliant blue as background, never a drop of rain. The garden exited to a downhill stint, tumbling through woods, bursting out to a monolithic opening, a high, cliffed perch over open water. Ceremoniously at the beginning of each vacation, the children and I descended the natural steps of the cliff and I reminded each child where the narrow, deep-diving crevasse was. One by one the children jumped into the crevasse, all laughter and adrenaline splashing into a lukewarm salt wrap of sea, overcoming the quiet surrounding us. Growth was tracked by markers the children could swim to, how many brioche au sucre they could devour before any adult woke for breakfast.
Each August for seven years I flew with the children to the family home in Corsica, matching the three kids in green and blue stripes so I could easily handle them on my own in an airport, Sarah and her husband eventually meeting us at a later time when their busy Manhattan schedules allowed. The first year I traveled with the family, Sarah took all three of the children from me at six o’clock one evening, the time I typically escorted each child to the outdoor shower to remove sand debris from folds of skin. She suggested I go down to the cliffs for a swim in the sea by myself. This allowance of independence felt like a gift and I eagerly agreed, pardoning myself from the children to begin my descent down the cliff steps.
At the bottom plateau, the sea greeted me and I immediately became overwhelmed at the sight of the sun starting its slouch toward the waterline. The sweep of blue water seized my body with fear. Normally I was comforted by the sight of any water’s fluidity, but this body of water felt different from all the other ones that came before it. The sea must have heard me muttering in anxiety because for a brief moment its waves splashed onto the plateau, licking my ankles, panting for me to jump into its depth. I unwrapped my towel and set it on the planked bench that was built into two large boulders at the left of the jump-off. I took one more look at the sea, touched my fingertips into a V, and dove into the deep crevasse I usually pointed the children toward. As I billowed down below the waterline I saw teals and navies, azuls and spots of black, cream speckles of disattached algae. A small fish swam by only to be shooed away by my exhale of bubbles, propelled from fear, as I grasped back upward for air. When I arrived out of the sea, my shoulders bobbed bare in open sky and my lower half still churned below water. There was silence all around, my legs so vulnerable down where I couldn’t see. My body was an infant in that moment, small and alone, away from my fake family in a territory that was foreign in language. I plunged back down into the wet and swam back toward the crevasse, hauling my legs onto the rocks that were without oursins, ripples splashing my thighs as I lifted out of the water with urgency. When I returned back to the house Sarah asked me how the swim was and I lied to her, telling her it was excellent.
Abuse is a cyclical thing: tension builds to an incident, the incident occurs in all its sloppy bruises, welts, and screams for help, the abuser apologizes, and then, as the finale, a hideous, consuming, limb-tangled fuckfest smothers itself all over a bed or a floor, potentially in the back of a truck, in a deep stainless-steel tub that has brass turn knobs and warm water lapping on the floor from movement, even on the pine-brush ground coverings of Catskill woods, in an expensive hotel room overlooking the Manhattan skyline, wherever could gloss over the fact that what N and I had between us was slowly rotting to the core. In this cycle of abuse I became the object and N was the subject. She enacted things upon me and soon I slowly began defining myself to fit into the parameters of her words and actions. It was easy to be moved around in this state. N placed me anywhere she wanted and I was content to stay where she held me: on a pedestal or below her foot. [The dynamic formed either accidentally or because N intentionally designed it that way. It has taken me a long time, but when I think of N now, I think of her small as a child, uncared for and scared, unassumingly inflicting harm on others because her own mother refused to hold her as a baby. The most horrific thing about abuse is confronting the fact that the person that has hurt you was, at one time, innocent.]
So when we were fucking and she impregnanted me that day, I hoped for weeks that my definition as object came to fruition, that my body held magical powers that could transport the potential of child if I just wished hard enough.
In Corsica I met Sarah’s grandmother, who survived the Holocaust. She was blind now and spoke to me in French; I responded in my fragments. She always cradled my cheek in her palm. Mon petit chou, she would call to me in her soft wobbling voice. The first time I tasted her meringue it tasted of cloud. As the meringue pulled out of the oven, all the children—Sarah and her children, Sarah’s mother—would gather in the kitchen and we would all marvel at it. Its blush hue and pockets of air were seamlessly woven into egg-white swirl. The middle child was never one to contain her excitement. I could always tell when she was just about to burst. She would leap into and pinch at my elbow, turn her face to me in a frantic twist and ask how long we would have to wait until the dessert cooled. Her head rested dreamily on the flesh of my arm. I leaned over the meringue and tore a small crumble off for her, still warm out of the oven, ready to dissipate in her mouth. Sarah looked to me and said, You’ll need to bake with my grandmother. Her measurements are in palms and finger pinches. Nothing is written. I never managed to make the meringue. But for one Passover, I did make an olive oil cake, based off the grandmother’s handwritten notes. I substituted in for the family that holiday, if only through a baked tradition that could not be measured in any other way.
A non-comprehensive, chronological list of ways N enacted on my body during our one year together: commented on how surprisingly large my breasts were the first time we fucked, slipped her fingers between my lips, pulled my jaw down, and spit in my mouth without asking (naturally I loved this), posted continuous, poised, self-timed photos of us on social media (her grid is still a museumed shrine to my past body), flipped a table over while we were eating at a restaurant, causing fresh perogies to slide their warm grease on to my lap, sped the emerald green pickup truck on I-87 threatening to kill both of us if I didn’t agree to [X], grabbed on to my legs in a slick bathtub as I tried to remove myself from an argument, held me down by my throat because I wouldn’t turn a bedside lamp off, attempted to wrap said lamp cord around my throat, locked me outside of a rented cabana in a country where I could not speak the language, spit in my face (not in the fun way), shoved me against a brick wall (thank you to the stranger who intervened), picked my wallet from my back pocket and held it above my head until I agreed to let her into my home (fuck you to every person who did not intervene), scalded me with boiling dumpling soup, shoved her three fingers into me at max capacity after I was not cumming fast enough, hospitalized me on a Thursday night, threw a glass (brimming with water and ice cubes) at my head, watched as I removed shards of glass from the bottoms of my feet and tops of my hands.
The ways in which I cared for N after bursts of violence I learned through nannying.
The ways in which I put myself back together after I left N I learned through nannying.
With the glass to the head, the violence just stopped, as if a curse had been lifted. An officer, after an incident where N blossomed little purple and blue fingerprint bruises around my arms, once told me it takes ten acts of violence for a person to actualize the situation. It wasn’t as if I did not comprehend the severity of our altercations. But there is a certain hesitancy in the queer community of trusting law enforcement that simply overrode my understanding in what my body was physically capable of taking. My surprise was not that I finally found the gall to file for a restraining order, merely to pretend its paper pulp could stand in as protector. My surprise came through the fact that my body melded to a statistical cliché any officer of the law could have predicted.
During our year together, N stole a profound number of limbs and parts of me. When I left, nothing was intact. It is assumed that transitions occur naturally, as if they are not formed off the back of tense reactions. The moment I was alone with my body again was the moment I removed it from any definitive sphere of womanhood. I began rerouting my body at a frantic pace: changing the ways I dressed it, changing my name and pronouns, altering traces of existence that had past correlations with any brutality that tied back to N. The two-year lapse while the restraining order was in effect birthed a new type of body. My body whispered to me new and fanatical ways of reinvention I had never dreamed of before. By the time I reached thirty-three, by the time I problem-solved all of my body’s urges in protection, I reached a point where my body needed a more dire prospect of shedding. It wanted proper birth.
In Maternal Desire, Daphne de Marneffe writes, “Even as fertility medicine is all about women’s desire to mother, its predication on the biological mother–child connection cannot help but contribute to our societal emphasis on having, as opposed to caring for, children.” I have raised plenty children. My understandings in discipline, nurturing, care, and love were finely attuned qualities built into my being, characteristics that eventually became building blocks to earn me a privileged life. But what was I to do with a body so hungry for ownership and agency?
How was I to soothe when it seemed I had nothing to show for all the ways I sacrificed the precocious commodity of womanly body? I existed at an intersection of gaining my body back and drifting away from the social standing as a woman. I rebirthed myself alone.
In that motion I romanticized a further externalization, of creating something inside me that would continue to push my body to the brink. I convinced myself at a reckoning pace that this obsession with birth was a bodily reaction after one year confined to violence. I did not want to confront that perhaps this desire for children was born of all the ways I had failed as a woman.
The first time I concretely considered having a child on my own was after I went on two unsuccessful dates with men. Since I left N not only did my body not know what to do with itself generally, but it had no desire for touch. For many months I resisted this notion, fucking three of my friends, having one threesome, and later switching my Tinder settings to include men up to fifty years old. Earlier in the week I went out with a friend and she tells me that after ten years of dating women she is now sleeping with men. She suspects this is because she too is considering children.
My date with Sam ended at my apartment, after he unexpectedly took my hand at a bar while talking about his photography practice. An hour after drinks on the sofa, various touching, and a sloppy make out, Sam goes limp inside me, falling asleep as I sit on top of him. As I call him back awake he wearily asks if he can sleep at my place for the night. I briefly consider this has been his plan all along since he had revealed to me earlier in the night that he detests his roommates, and the six of them, housed in a crumbling Bushwick loft, are all quarreling. Later I will go on to see an editorial piece dedicated to Sam and to his roommate woes published in the New Yorker.
The next person I go out with is another man. Unlike Sam, I have a boisterous time with Drew, drinking beers around a firepit, driving to the tallest waterfall in our area, exchanging stories about our lives at a balanced rate, finishing seven hours together with cocktails at an upscale hotel nearby. I like Drew. Sandwiched in our intimate conversations, he reveals two years ago he was diagnosed with leukemia. My immediate thought is wondering if one can impregnate someone after having rounds of chemo.
All the years I skirted away from timelines had suddenly caught up with me. You buy an avocado in the store and if it goes three days past its ripened date, you’re fucked. There is no getting back time. My pregnancy urge, my atrocious focus on men, the crushing desperation to be seen, in all the ways my care had been erased, the ways in which I believed I wasted my body, the ways in which I could not even define myself as a woman anymore, became a mind-numbing spiral that was turning me into the women I had always despised. I was a person on a timeline.
A list of things I have learned to do alone: sit at a bar with the solace of a beer, hike a volcanic peak in the town where my grandfather was stationed during war, swim, beat my own score at the Wednesday crossword, change a bicycle tire, perfect a meringue recipe, enroll back into school, record audio of myself reading aloud to myself (if only to have for a later time), fold a fitted sheet, install bookshelves, purchase a car, move cities, configure my taste in homes, learn the difference between linen types, schedule MRIs and mammograms, stay weeks with friends who are expecting their second child, sweep the remnants of broken dishes, set a trail of acid to lure the cockroaches at night, witness two friends in love commit to a lifetime together, hold my grandmother’s hand one last time in her hospital bed, blend watercolors together to get the exact hue of lilac, take long walks to nowhere as a way of going somewhere, sit comfortably in silence with any person at any given time.
I did things alone because my body learned a refusal for touch.
I did things alone and convinced myself having a child this way was not only plausible, but sensible.
I have met one other woman who actively decided on single motherhood. She was a co-worker of Sarah’s. I say “co-worker” as if this woman is not one of the top board members of a global financial institution. She is the type of woman I obsess over now, women who look and act nothing like me. These women are the object and I am the subject, my gaze in awe of their seemingly unwavering strength in the face of motherhood. These women are always rich.
My obsession with wealthy women putting on a show of mothering inevitably led me to binging entire seasons of Keeping up with the Kardashians. I am mesmerized by their bodies, by their family unit, the pretense of it all. Like most people, I am enamored by their children. Of the vacations the family travels on, there is never any mention of the help that follows internationally. On one trip, Khloe is seen bringing her small daughter with her to Turks and Caicos. The daughter does not reappear until footage on the flight back. I wonder often where the children are when the family is filming. Surely, there is an onslaught of care the children have when their parents are working. And that’s fine—the Kardashians have money and are able to spend it on support, something I wish every mother had the advantage to do. When I worked for Sarah, I was able to reparent myself and I understood at a point that I was able to do that because of her wealth. She was able to be there for her children at a higher capacity because of her income. The home she kept, the rationale behind her care for her children, can all be tied back to the amount of support she has and to her ability to provide more outlets for passions and interests.
The same applies for any wealthy woman. The fact that the Kardashians keep their children off screen and bring them in simply when it benefits the plotline only props up this idea of dual identity, an identity that most mothers find themselves forced into. The Kardashians have the luxury of actively choosing which identity they would partake in—mother or friend, on-call or at-leisure. The possibility of choice between these identities is not presented as edited, but rather as reality. I have read that between the four Kardashian sisters they employ thirteen nannies. I have never seen one of them on their show, nor on their social media. The nannies are figments of the imagination.
Kourtney tends to be regarded as the mother who is tethered to her children the most, yet it’s widely known each child has their own caregiver. This is the problem every woman is facing. There is no correct way to be woman when you are a mother, or, for that matter, if you remain childfree. The real problem lies in the ways women treat each other in this cosmos and the way we silence domestic labor outside the family unit.
Women subsidize the work of wealthier women, freeing the latter to join a productive labor force by taking jobs in business roles, to be active consumers and volunteers, to earn more money so they can continue to culturally groom their children. Domestic work—governed by interacting networks of women of different classes, different ethnicities, different citizen statuses—ultimately sets the women who do the employing and the women who are employed to become isolated in their own parameter of womanhood. It only disservices this global chain of care when we erase and make invisible everyone besides the parents who abide by typical media-driven, binary-inducing mother and father roles. If millions of viewers understood how much money and effort and support it took to raise these children, that would certainly burst the fantasy of a mother who has it all. It would only highlight the failure of the word mother, and how it always ignores the bonds that rest outside that word.
The night before Kim Kardashian’s fourth child is born via surrogate, she attends the Met Gala with her waist cinched in a jaw-dropping, restrictive corset. She genuinely seems on the verge of collapse, her airways severed by boning. The next day when her surrogate gives birth, there is a one-line mention of the surrogate in the Kardashian filming. It is an acknowledgement to how incredible the surrogate is and how thankful Kim is for her service. The surrogate never makes an appearance again. She is not seen at the baby shower, we do not get testimonies in front of the camera. Kim’s body remains in its false show of femininity and the viewer will never think twice about the surrogate after this episode. The Kardashians’ mission is to cast a small net on what it means to be a woman in this day and age, busy with a family, busy with businesses that appear to have come organically. The surrogate does not fit into this picture. She is an object to be moved around, to be paid for. After she has served her duty, she disappears into an abyss, birthing one of the wealthiest children in America and then vanishing faceless into a mass of labor.
I have been mistaken for a mother my entire life. The first time it happened I was with my mother and one of her day-care children. We were at the mall when my mother stepped out of the store for a moment and the clerk came up to me to ask if I was with my daughter. I was fourteen at the time. I believed my round, childlike face at age twenty-three was enough to deter strangers from thinking Sarah’s children were mine. But trusting strangers not to insert themselves in assumption is a fool’s task when you are with children.
While the youngest, the middle, and I were sitting on the Museum of Natural History steps, a passerby slowed their pace and simply gawked at us. Such a beautiful family, they exclaimed. By that time the youngest was four and the middle was nine. We all smiled at each other knowingly and the stranger asked if we would like a picture. Sure, I smiled. Squeeze closer to Mommy! the stranger exclaimed. The two children and I thanked the stranger for the photo, and after they disappeared we all burst into laughter. That photo I never sent to the parents. I felt ashamed for welcoming this interaction. A mother’s identity is formed on the basis of established privacy, one of the few rights to natural personhood a woman can grow into. When anyone attempts to crack that identity, a crisis ensues. I have met few mothers who recognize and make visible the amount of community labor that goes into parenting. Most mothers protect their singular saintly image so that the facade of powerhouse mother remains impenetrable. What rights was I owed as the person on the other side doing the cracking? The amount of times strangers have forced me into the complex of woman became such a nauseating confrontation that I began to wonder if any woman truly gave two thoughts about having children, if we were all just bullied into this state of being. Who was I even, if not a biological clock on its rundown?
Every book I have read about mothering looks mainly at the ways women cope with raising children. There is little emotional literature on the nine months spent creating the child, on the hours it takes to labor a child. When I ask my mother what my birth was like, what I was like in the womb, she opens with the fact that I was supposed to be aborted. This is news to me at thirty-four. Sure, she replies cooly. I can hear in her voice she is proud that I am standing in a kitchen five hundred and forty-six miles away from her. She goes on to say that because she had recently gotten the varicella vaccine, a simple vaccine to combat chicken pox, her OB-GYN stated I had a high chance of blindness and deafness. In 1987 this was enough for a doctor to issue a lengthy warning and suggestion for ending the child’s life. She quickly follows up by telling me she switched doctors immediately. I pause at her story, knowing if I had received news my first child would be potentially blind and deaf I may as well have panicked and followed my doctor’s orders without question. Through the telephone I hear my mother’s voice shift into defiance, a tone only mothers have when they have made enough decisions that go against the recommendation of doctors in this country.
You were very quiet in the womb, my mother says. It made me incredibly nervous. I had to drink orange juice and lay on my left side if I wanted you to move around, if I wanted you to signal something to me or if I wanted to signal something to you. I ask her what my labor was like and she replies it was a twenty-seven hour ordeal, ending three hours into the early morning of my exact due date. When we brought you home, you were quiet then too. Nothing at all like your brother, who she later equates to a football player in utero. You slept through the night very early on and you rarely wanted to be touched. There is a lull of silence. I think of that doctor often because look at you now, you have such a gift for music, she quips. My mother has done this all of my life, showered me with praise, told me how special and gifted I was. She still does this, to a fault. Growing up I thought I was truly capable of anything, that I deserved the world, that my love for myself would shine on to others and they would treat me with the same dignity. I never thought my empathy and care would be used as a tool against me, that my softness one day would find me in a position where I excused others’ hands on my body. I asked my mother if she was scared to give birth, to be split open. She replies she was, but those feelings came more pronounced before my brother’s arrival. I never thought I could love another human being as much as I loved you, she says. I was scared your brother would never be able to compare. What helped you through that, I ask her. My mother, she replies.
Shortly after Sarah hired me she told me she staffs her home the same way she staffs her office. She understood what she could not give her children and she aimed to fill in those gaps with the people she hired. Everything I admire in you, she told me, I would never be able to do. It’s not in my nature. Sarah too was everything my mother was not. She was unnervingly firm one moment yet caring the next. She took her time when teaching her children the things she did well—math, cooking, gardening. Once when she had redone the entire garden bed in front of her home, she asked me to come out and look at it. Didn’t I do an excellent job? she asked. It looks beautiful, I replied. I know, she replied as she smiled adoringly at her handiwork. I think everyone should ask for a little validation when they know they’ve done something incredible. Try it sometime, she exclaimed.
Through witnessing Sarah parent, I understood what it meant to not only care for her children but I learned how to properly care for myself for once. Sarah modeled a perfect balance of discipline and love, and holds the greatest patience I have ever seen in a person. In Corsica, Sarah would try to speak to me only in French. I would fumble around the house asking repeatedly what basic objects were called. Huile d’olive, she would say. I repeated the words back to her. Non, non, she said. Look at me. Look at my mouth.
She stretched the word out, stretched it until I heard every single syllable and vowel, until I understood where every letter stood, how language was formed. Huile, she stretched. D’olive, she stretched. Repeat it back to me ten times. I tried over and over and over, standing in the kitchen with a bottle of olive oil grasped in my fist, until she was finally pleased with my tonation. Two women standing face to face in bathing suits and cover-ups while saucisson was sliced on the countertop behind us, while salad greens were being washed by her mother in the sink. It’s like you’re my fourth child, she joked.
All the activities I planned for the children were activities I would have given anything to do as a child. Sarah’s type of wealth allotted her children opportunities and experiences my family could have never dreamed of and I often wondered if my family had ever made the type of money that Sarah and her husband did if it would have alleviated stress on my parents, if the arguing would have dwindled, if I would have been able to explore my passions as a child, if I would have never conflated violence with love. If my family had the type of wealth Sarah’s family did, would it have been this easy to love my father and my mother? If I didn’t have Sarah’s wealth and decided to have a child on my own, would my child come to resent me for a selfish nature? A birth all for the sake of externalizing the emotion of new being.
I saw Sarah briefly after I left N. She smiled as she told me she knew something was innately wrong when I had visited in the spring months, a trip I took uptown to expressly visit Sarah to hear her rationed logic of love. Now, Sarah said, she noticed a shift in my demeanor. I left N, I embarrassingly confessed. Sarah smiled kindly at me and replied, I knew you were making the wrong choice in leaving us, but I also know you deeply and understand there is no way to change your mind. Tears welled in my eyes as they often did when she read me for who I was. She continued, My only wish for you is that you take as good care of yourself as you did my children.
After I left Sarah’s that day, I pulled a pacifier from my coat pocket, a forgotten remnant of a walk I went on with the new baby I was nannying. The pacifier idled on my dresser all weekend until I returned to work. I couldn’t get myself away from caring no matter how hard I tried; families seemed to show up on my doorstep. As I passed that pacifier all weekend, I began to see an archive of all the many homes I worked in. The ways I walked out in the world and held my body upright, even in its childlessness, managed to collect all of these stories and decades of tending. And sometimes, when I was feeling generous, I counted my own body among the homes I was trying to tend to. Even if that body sometimes felt discarded amongst the havoc lineage provided.